Tuesday, October 27, 2015

SUFFER THE CHILDREN by Craig DiLouie

YO. I gotta tell ya'll, this is one fucked-up little book!

Let's start with this book's awesome premise. Out of nowhere, a worldwide event (later dubbed Herod's Syndrome) causes all pre-pubescent children to drop dead. Then, after three days, it resurrects them, but in order to stay resurrected, they need to ingest a certain amount of human blood. The novel follows three families as they navigate this new reality. 

Craig DiLouie takes this crazy concept and really milks it for all it's worth, delivering a creative twist on vampire fiction and on end-of-the-world fiction as well. He delivers horror in the way that Stephen King does with Pet Sematary, feeding on the terrifying concept of a parent dealing with the sudden death of their child, and the lengths that a dedicated parent would go to in order to keep their children alive.

One of the clever things is that it's not even the bloodthirsty children that are scary in this. In fact, when their hunger is satisfied, they're essentially their old child-like selves again. What really brings the horror is watching what the parents have to go through after the children die (like the horrible notion of having to deliver your rotting 8-year-old for burial in a mass grave) and then see what happens when the children come back and the parents realize that it's possible to keep their children alive by feeding them human blood, that one simple thing that can make them whole again. That's what's truly terrifying: watching how this discovery slowly breaks down society, and realize that it's actually really believable. That grocery store sequence? Damn. That's one of the most unnerving and horrifyingly effective sequences I've read in a very long time! And there are other similar scenes in this one that really gave me the willies!

Another clever thing about this concept is that DiLouie can have the parents do anything in this book and it would be believable. Because what parent wouldn't do anything to be with their kids longer?

As I mentioned, DiLouie milks his ideas for all their worth and delivers a truly unsettling story with interesting characters, cinematic prose and some surprising twists of the fucked-up variety. While writing this, I thought to myself: am I really giving this book a full A? But I really have no complaints with this bad-boy, so yep, there you go! It's an engaging mix of science-fiction and horror and is everything that end-of-the-world/apocalyptic fiction should be.
"There were so many times I was too tired to play with him. Too distracted by work to really listen. Too irritated by his tantrums and sickliness to be present. Understand? But not now. I look back sometimes, and I can't believe what used to matter to me. The things I used as excuses to get away. Not now. This is a different time. A purer time. I've never known such clarity. The only thing that matters is blood."
GRADE: A

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

ANIMOSITY by James Newman

This is the type of story that I'm a sucker for: the focus on the dark-side of human nature and how society naturally can turn on itself and become something terrifying.  Here, we follow a commercially successful horror writer that stumbles onto the corpse of a raped and murdered little girl, and the way that the media and gossip causes his small town to turn against him.

Much of your enjoyment of this novel might hinge on how well you think the transition into the mob mentality works. And it didn't work for me as much as I'd hoped. And no, I'm not naive. It's not that I don't believe that people and the nature of society are capable of such depravity (because they are), it's just that I was never able to truly buy into the fact that these particular people would react so quickly in this way, in this particular situation. I wish that the book was longer and spent a little more time building the case against Andy, or more time on building the town gossip's snowball effect. And this is coming from a guy who wishes that all books could be novella length. But if more time was spent involving the child victim's family for example, if we felt their involvement more in community and the story, if their agony and desperate suspicions helped to fuel the town's anger, and the cycle that would come from that, that would have helped. I'm sure that's part of what caused the town to react in the way they did, I just wish we got more of a sense of it in the book. If there was a little more of a build-up, I might have bought more into the idea of a bunch of over-the-hill housewives brandishing garden shears and ganging up for a public lynching, or a soft-spoken pregnant woman reduced to attempting to claw out the eyes of an 11-year-old girl. I know the speed of the transition to brutality is the whole point and I understood it intellectually but it just never really rang as genuine to me. I also could've done without the whole summary of the novel's themes in the epilogue, as if I needed it all spelled out for me...

But it seems like I'm the only one who thinks this. The book has mostly great reviews, so I'm an almost one-man minority with this less than great review, so don't let this stop you from reading it. I still enjoyed it; it's still a tense, suspenseful read, and the furthest thing from boring. Superficially, the novel still really works as a great thriller. It's definitely worth a read and seems like it would be a great conversation starter.  Many might wonder why this novel is considered horror. There are no ghouls, goblins, ghosts, vampires, demons, or werewolves. But what this book is about is something way more horrifying. It's about the the possibilities of violence that human nature has in store for us all, and the fact that we all have potential of being the victims or the perpetrators. A scary thought.

GRADE: B-

Sunday, October 18, 2015

THE BOOK OF NIGHT WOMEN by Marlon James

"We not getting free, we taking free."
OUT. FUCKING. STANDING.

This book floored me. Seriously. I was so stunned by the time I finished that I couldn't sleep for a while, even though I had to be to work on set at 6am the following day! The Book of Night Women is the best coming of age novel I've encountered; it really is unlike anything I've read before. Night Women, Marlon James's second novel, follows a mulatto girl named Lilith, who is born into slavery in late 18th-century Jamaica, and the eventful year after she turns 15 at the Montpelier Estate. Lilith catches the eye of Homer, the strong-willed head house slave, who recruits her to join a quorum of five other women, who are plotting an island-wide slave rebellion. 

One of the things that's so impressive about this novel is how fascinating this coming of age concept is, illuminating the horrifying effects of slavery in a unique way that we've never seen before.  It's commonly known how difficult it is being a teenage girl, dealing with the growing pains of puberty, sexual awakening, mood swings, self-discovery, and the need to assert independence and be seen as a woman. Now imagine all of this happening while the only world you know is one of complete oppression and total lack of freedom or positive influence. This idea is ripe for exploration and Marlon James leaves no stone unturned. How would a young girl handle being touched with kindness when all she knows is being touched with violence? How do you handle the already confusing matter of being mixed race during a time when skin color defines everything? It's unsettling, frustrating, and ultimately engaging to watch the process of Lilith growing from a girl to a self-aware woman throughout the book. And this concept of coming of age as a slave is something that I feel no one else has ever done (The Book of Negroes might be the closest), at least not this powerfully, showing the horrifying effect of slavery in a unique way that we've never seen before.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see how hyper feminist the story is. There are only a couple main male characters and almost no primary male slave characters. It's kind of a breath of fresh air as there are hardly any strong female characters in classic slave narratives and here, the entire revolt plot is planned by strong women all over the colony. They don't involve men because they don't believe that men have enough rational brainpower to really handle this! Here, it's the women that are totally badass, calling the shots, packing muskets and machetes and Obeah spells, and it always feels genuine. 

The cherry on top is of course the author's skillful writing. He's a natural and the prose is epic, poetic, and probably the most challenging of all his novels. While both John Crow's Devil and even the dense A Brief History of Seven Killings have heavy loads of Jamaican patois, Night Women is COMPLETELY told in patois and I could imagine it no other way. It helps to provide a totally original voice. Although I had no problem with it as I grew up in the Caribbean, I expect many readers to have a difficult time. But, I think the plot and the amazing characters are easier to grasp and more accessible than either of those other books. And for anyone that has a problem with the vernacular, I highly recommend listening to the audiobook as well. I jumped back and forth between the paperback and the audio and Robin Miles's narration is the best audiobook performance I've heard. She's a complete chameleon with accents and really accentuated the drama!

So as you can tell I adored this book and I immediately added it to my list of favorites. It's a total masterpiece from the beginning all the way to it's extraordinary ending that James just NAILS like a master conductor! This is a powerful piece of work and I believe (and sincerely hope) that this book will ultimately be considered a literary classic in years to come. Bravo Marlon James! Bravo!
Some fire don't go out, they go quiet under the ash, waiting for one little dry stick to feed. So the white man sleep with one eye open, waiting for the fire next time.
     That fire coming.


GRADE: A+

Thursday, October 15, 2015

NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET: HORROR STORIES by Richard Matheson

This is my first real foray into Matheson's work that I can remember (I read I Am Legend a very long time ago and can't quite recall it). I knew he was an important and influential author but I had no idea to what extent! It feels to me like he's the author that had the strongest influence on Stephen King. Their style of storytelling and pacing (at least in the short story work) is very similar! And you can also see why he was tapped to write The Twilight Zone episodes and why that show adapted a few of his stories. If you're a fan of the show, you'll love this collection as the stories have a very similar structure.

I listened to this on audiobook throughout the span of several months. I really enjoyed most of the tales in this collection and was constantly impressed with how clever and creative Matheson was in his storytelling. The concept and idea for each story is compelling and will keep you reading. And not only does Matheson show real skill in building upon these concepts in interesting and original ways and bringing it to a slam-bang ending, but he also has a great sense of what to show, what not to show, and when to do so. In the entire collection the writing has a great sense of mischief throughout, that same sense that King's writing has in his best creepy tales. The best example of Matheson's skill is the best story in the collection, the utterly creepy "Dress of White Silk", about a young girl obsessed with her dead mother's belongings. And that final couple of lines? Holy shit.

Other standout stories are, "Disappearing Act," "Legion of Plotters," "The Likeness of Julie," "First Anniversary," "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,""Through Channels," "Blood Son"...hell, who am I kidding? Just read 'em all. Definitely a recommendation if you're looking for some classic horror stories this Halloween season.

GRADE: A-

Saturday, October 10, 2015

THE UNDERDWELLING by Tim Curran

Setting and atmosphere is so important in many horror stories and this book has that in spades! This novella by cult favorite horror author Tim Curran is about a young miner who is excited for his new post on a graveyard shift team to work the bottom levels of the Hobart mine, because it means extra dough that'll help with his new baby on the way. But on his first night, a new, deeper section of the mine is revealed and because he's all macho and shit, he volunteers with a group to explore it. And what they find is a horror that's been hidden for thousands of years. 

This one is actually even better than the previous novella I've read by Curran, Blackout, mostly due to his skillful rendering of the environment: the absolute, claustrophobic darkness deep beneath the earth and the way it can break the mind, the smells, the sounds that shouldn't be there, and the hopelessness of being trapped. Curran is great at setting a scene and maintaining mood.And points for a chilling ending that's even more fucked up than I expected...

If you enjoyed The Descent, that tense, heart attack of a movie about a group of badass women discovering horrors underground and directed by my buddy Neil Marshall, you should give this novella a spin!


GRADE: B+

Friday, October 9, 2015

COME CLOSER by Sara Gran

Many of the popular horror story tropes don't really affect me. Vampires, zombies, slasher killers, monsters. But demonic possession always freaks me out a little. Losing control of myself has always been one of my biggest fears, and the idea that a purely evil spirit is capable of controlling my susceptible body, soul, and thoughts is a little nerve-wracking. This book is a very well-done portrait of one woman as she slowly loses that control.

Author Sara Gran skillfully crafts this perfectly paced descent. How terrifying would it be to lose long lengths of time from your day, not knowing what happened, or what you did during that time? I love the subtlety and control of tone Gran maintains through most of the book. It's not all out horror, but instead it's a great psychological exploration, creepy and hypnotic.



GRADE: B+

Thursday, October 8, 2015

fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

This was so damned disappointing. I'm actually bothered by this. I'm such a big fan of Butler's novel Kindred and this one (her last before her unfortunate passing) almost felt like it was written by someone else. The book actually sports a really great concept that's ripe for tons of conflict and exploration of ideas and themes. The story is about an amnesiac 11-year-old-looking girl and her rediscovery that she is in fact an experimental member of the Ina, a vampiric species that live in a mutually symbiotic relationship with several humans. She is one of a few Ina that have dark skin, who's melanin might be the key to withstanding the sun rays. There are so many cool ideas that can stem from these concepts and that's what kept me reading longer than I normally would have with this book. 

But these cool concepts are totally betrayed by not only the blandest plot you could ever come up with from such a great idea, but also some of the dullest and most lackluster writing I've ever come across. While Butler's work on Kindred had such an urgent insistence to it and a great sense of personality and pace, the work in this one was devoid of not only that but also lacked any flavor or style, leaving nothing but dry, awkward, and totally redundant dialogue along with wikipedia-like info dumps about Butler's ideas every two pages. She should have taken a note from George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series for a good example of how to organically provide tons of exposition. And I think it might have been a mistake to write this in first-person. Not only is it already tricky to successfully pull off an amnesiac protagonist in first-person, but our heroine's inner dialogue was laughable and sometimes cringe-inducing at times, with lots of annoying "what have I done?'s" and "could it be?'s" throughout, like a bad YA-book written for pre-teen girls.

I'll give the book a few points because it does bring up some great ideas about sex, race and racism, and free-will, but a better constructed delivery of these ideas could have turned this into an utter masterpiece. And I keep bringing up her work on Kindred because it proves that Butler could have done better. I read somewhere that she was having a hard time writing while taking medication later in her years and wasn't very confident about fledgling. So she probably knew she was capable of more as well.


GRADE: C-

Monday, October 5, 2015

CRAWL by Edward Lorn

Author Edward Lorn is an active member on Goodreads and while we don't I've admired his book reviews and his taste in the horror genre. He doesn't seem to hound people for reviews which is refreshing, and his books have also gotten pretty good praise so when October came around I dropped a couple bucks on Amazon and gave this a go.

I was DEFINITELY not disappointed. I expected a good horror read but I didn't expect the writing to be as sharp and polished as the other greats in the genre. I know it's pretty much en vogue these days that whenever you read a good horror tale you compare it to Stephen King, but let me tell you, this comparison is undeniable and a total compliment with this book. Like King, not only is Edward Lorn's prose wicked and chilling, but it also mixes that with dashes of wit, a great sensitivity to character, and a dramatic bravery. Crawl is right up there with some of the best of King's short fiction.

The story is told from the point of view of Juliet and tells the story of what happens to her and her cheating husband as they travel along a dark highway on one creepy night.

And I must say, horror books don't really scare me that often but the way this story quickly descended really kept me wide-eyed and on edge, and there's one part that truly scared me. I won't say what it is here but holy shit, if I saw that in that situation, I'd probably shit myself before going insane. It's the fact that it's something so normally childlike and playful placed into a such a harrowing situation that really made it terrifying for me. I can probably count on one hand the amount of times I've been scared while reading and this is one of them. That's enough for me to look into all of this author's work.

GRADE: A-

Saturday, October 3, 2015

PIKE by Benjamin Whitmer

The holes they dug themselves into were exactly the shape of their dreams.
Whitmer's writing is contemporary noir in perfect pitch. Just like his title protagonist, his prose is muscular but spare. It only speaks when it has something to say, and when it has something to say, it packs a punch with very little. This is the type of fiction I love.
 
The book focuses on four damaged characters who know what they are and don't ask for sympathy. Pike, a hard-ass with a violent past who seems to be quietly enduring some sort of penance, his best friend Rory, an aspiring boxer who is haunted by his parents' deaths, training for one last shot at success by winning a tough man tournament (and has an unhealthy dependence on Vicodin), a corrupt Cincinnati cop that has his own twisted moral code, and a dirty-mouthed girl named Wendy who's 12-years-old-going-on-45, and happens to be the child of Pike's estranged daughter who has died recently of a supposed heroine overdose. These are strong characters and although I wanted a little more,  I was fascinated by how engaged I was with them, with such little information given.
"Take it from an ex-con, the market in redemption is running low."
Afterwards, I felt like I wanted to know more about Pike and Wendy, and more detail about how they change one another, but part of me feels that if Whitmer focused more on that, it would introduce a sentimentality that would be completely out of place here. This book features some of the most impressive writing I've read all year, and I'm excited to read more from this guy.
He smokes his cigarette until there's nothing but a smoldering scrap of paper between his fingers, staring at the tombstone as though some kind of answer might bloom out of it.
None does. He doesn't even have a good question.
GRADE: A-

Friday, October 2, 2015

BLOOD MERIDIAN, OR THE EVENING REDNESS IN THE WEST by Cormac McCarthy

I recall that there's a book written by some lady who claims to have been chosen by Jesus to be taken on a tour of Hell for 40 nights and spread the word as a warning. That book was most likely just written by a crazy lady and I've never read it, but Cormac McCarthy wrote a book that's close to what I would imagine that experience being like. 
“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”
Blood Meridian is like a walk (or ride) through all of your nightmares for 350 pages. I can confidently claim that there's probably nothing quite like it out there. But I admired the book more than I can say I enjoyed it. I admired McCarthy's obvious and famed skill as a wordsmith and his ability to paint a picture, but what left me cold wasn't the violence or darkness (there's such a distance in the writing that the violence isn't as affecting to me as was rumored), it was the fact that there wasn't really much happening and the story could've been told in 150 less pages than it was. For a large bulk of the book, our protagonist is essentially forgotten about. This really took away my emotional involvement and much of the book seems purposeful in being emotionally withdrawn. But once the book regains its focus on the kid, it starts to get pretty good in it's last quarter. But prior to that, we're basically tagging along with the Glanton gang as they talk shit and take scalps. And if there was a drinking game for every time McCarthy writes some variation of "And they rode on...", you wouldn't make it past page 100 before passing out.

Actually if McCarthy wrote this novel today it would be like 200 pages long and probably one of my favorite novels. He's definitely gotten more efficient as a writer. I think both of his latest novels, No Country For Old Men and especially The Road (which I consider a true masterpiece), take everything that he was doing in Blood Meridian, honed it down and pulled it off more successfully. His writing is tighter, more emotionally accessible, and at its most sublime in The Road, and the plotting is better in No Country, not to mention a more successful look at the nature of violence and the nihilistic view of fate. 

On another note, if you are having difficulty reading this or have read it and want another way of experiencing this, check out the unabridged audiobook read by Richard Poe. I listened to it and read it simultaneously and man it was one of the best audio performances I've listened to. Poe's voice seems like it was tailor-made to read books by Cormac McCarthy! 
“Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen the horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.”
But although I respect and appreciate the book for some great moments, for being like nothing else I've ever read, and for sporting some stunning prose, I was disappointed after hearing what a perfect masterpiece it was. Everything that people claim to love about this book, I feel that Cormac has done it better since. I've heard his Border Trilogy is pretty great, and I'll give that a try soon! or I'll jump into The Passenger next year!

GRADE: B-